Great music is timeless. Some songs are as powerful and contemporary today as they were when they were written hundreds of years ago. Great music transports us to a place beyond time, where lyrics and melodies can speak to many generations at once. This is one of the great things about music. However, because of music’s timeless quality, sometimes we forget that songs are written inside of time. The setting and context into which a hymn is written often times gives us great insight into the song’s meaning. Today we are going to look at a Christmas hymn whose message was prompted by the setting out of which it was written.
“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” was written in 1849 by a pastor from Massachusetts, Edmund Sears. As Sears wrote this song, he was reflecting on the tensions that were rising around him. The United States was just 12 years from the Civil War, and trouble was already brewing. Out of this this context, Sears drew comfort from the words that the Angels spoke to the shepherds on the night of Jesus birth declaring “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests (Luke 2:14).” In the dark of night, a new light shone that would provide peace for the people on the earth. This song begins 2,000 years ago with the angels, “bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold.” It continues to talk about the contemporary experience of mankind who are “beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low.” The song climaxes with a look at the future where “the whole world sends back the song which now the angels sing.” In other words, the promise of the angels of peace on earth will ultimately be fulfilled when Christ returns.
Think of all the wars that have been fought all over the world since the time of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. Sears saw the Civil War, but billions more have seen many others. The earth has hardly been a peaceful place for the last two millenia. However, the promise of the angels will ultimately be fulfilled. Peace will fill the earth for those who trust in Christ upon His second coming. We look forward to that day . . . and we sing. May the latest U.S. conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq not obscure the reality that the Prince of Peace will one day reign, and earthly armies will forever enter parade rest. Reflectively look over the lyrics to Sears great hymn today:
“It came upon the midnight clear, that glorious song of old
From angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold
“Peace on the earth good will to men from heaven’s all gracious King!”
The world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing.
Still thru the coven skies they come with peaceful wings unfurled
And still their heavenly music floats o’er all the weary world
Above its sad and lowly plains they bend on hovering wing
And ever o’er its Babel sounds the blessed angels sing.
And ye beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow
Look now, for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing
O rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing.
For lo, the days are hastening on, by prophets seen of old,
When with the ever circling years shall come the time foretold,
When the new heaven and earth shall own the Prince of Peace their King
And the whole world send back the song which now the angels sing!”